Film Review: ‘Mary
Twists Pain and Passion Into a Monster Image
May 23, 2018
Shelley isn't a perfect movie...But the movie performs an important task: It
gets people eager to learn more about Shelley, one of the most fascinating women
in English history. --Refinery29
Fanning portrays the title character in “Mary Shelley,” which explores the life
of the famed writer and the origins of her book “Frankenstein. -Credit
A preview of the film • Published On May 14, 2018, by IFC Films
2:06, Trailer: ‘Mary Shelley’
Mary Shelley, Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, Biography,
Drama, Romance, PG-13, 2 hours
Shelley” is a rarity: a literary biopic with an argument. Which is
by no means to say that the film, directed by Haifaa
forgoes the expected pleasures of the genre. You get candlelight and quill pens,
Regency gowns and celebrity shout-outs (Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, in the house!), and of course the usual feverish attempts to
convey both the passion and the discipline of the writing process. Also
good-looking young actors declaiming poetry and prose in crisply accented,
grammatically flawless English.
But rather than smother Mary Shelley —
author of “Frankenstein,” daughter
of two eminent writers and wife of another — with soft cushions of antiquarian
cultural prestige, Ms. al-Mansour
and the screenwriter, Emma Jensen, sharpen the sense of
Shelley’s modernity. It helps enormously that she is played with alert
sensitivity and acute intelligence by Elle
We first encounter Mary in motion, dashing home
from a London cemetery where she has been scribbling furiously at the graveside
of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.
That Mary, who died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, was the author
of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a work of
18th-century feminist thought that has yet to lose its radicalism or its
relevance. Wollstonecraft’s husband, the novelist, philosopher and bookseller
William Godwin (Stephen
Dillane), has remarried, and Mary must contend with a mean stepmother
(Joanne Froggatt) who disapproves of her
William, to keep peace in the household, sends
Mary off to Scotland, where she meets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas
Booth), a dreamy dirtbag lit bro who will in due
course die young and be remembered as one of the great English poets of his
time. Percy is 21 and has already abandoned one wife and child, but his
capital-R romantic idealism includes a few clauses about free love that chime
with Mary’s rebellious inheritance. Also he has soft lips, delicate cheekbones
and a way with rhymes, so before long Mary has run off with him
and brought her stepsister, Claire (Bel
Powley), along on the adventure.
It turns out rougher
than Mary, who is 16, anticipated. There is tragedy, scandal,
money trouble and Percy’s mercurial (though in some ways entirely predictable)
behavior. The commitment to unconventional, liberated lives
that he and Mary share means different things to each of them, and the film
emphasizes the gap between theory and practice when it comes to equality between
the sexes. Traditional roles may oppress and stultify women, but the
free-and-easy hedonism Mary and Claire find with Percy and Lord Byron (a scene-stealing Tom
Sturridge) is no great bargain either.
But Byron’s Swiss
chateau is nonetheless where the seed of “Frankenstein” is planted, and “Mary
Shelley” is as much a biography of that book as of its author.
The book originates during a highbrow parlor game at
Byron’s, where Mary, Claire
and Percy are hanging out with a physician named John Polidori
(Ben Hardy). But the film expands on this origin story, suggesting various
streams of Mary’s experience that feed into her chronicle of a misunderstood
monster. Her childhood fondness for scary tales and the literary influence of
her father (author of the Gothic novel “Caleb Williams”)
combine with her own grief, frustration and isolation to produce a
This account is plausible and moving, at once a
defense of genre fiction and of female creativity. But at times the differences
between male and female writers can seem a bit schematic, in a way that
undermines Mary’s intellectual autonomy. William,
Percy and Byron are understood to be motivated
by ideas, while Mary’s inspirations come from the realm of feeling.
“Frankenstein” is thus, above all, a triumph of expression, the quasi-therapeutic
transformation of pain into art. Some of the durable
insights it offers to readers — into the risks of scientific inquiry and
technological innovation, into the philosophical complexity of human identity —
are slighted in favor of its cathartic power in the life of the
Still, the acknowledgment of Mary Shelley seems long
overdue, and “Mary
Shelley” is a reminder that England in the early 19th century
remains a rich repository of stories and characters, and era that can be made to
feel charmingly quaint and bracingly modern, on both the page and the screen.
Film Review: 'Mary
Production: A HanWay Films, BFI presentation of a Parallel
Produced by Amy Baer, Alan Moloney, Ruth Coady.
Executive producers: Johanna Hogan, Peter Watson,
Matthew Baker, Isabel Davis, Charles Auty, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Emma Jensen,
Joannie Burstein, Rebecca Miller, Mark Amin.
Crew: Directed by Haifaa
Screenplay: Emma Jensen.
Camera (color): David Ungaro.
Music: Amelia Warner.
With: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom
Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Maisie Williams, Joanne Froggatt, Ben Hardy